Nowhere to go but up Vines: Climbers will grow a flower where no flower has grown before.

September 08, 1996|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I have always had a healthy respect for the silent power of Mother Earth to reclaim her own. No sooner does a person turn his (or her) back than nature is there, insinuating itself in, with weeds, grasses, bushes, trees -- and vines. Yup, blink your eyes and there it is, taking over again in no time at all. Kudzu and Japanese honeysuckle are just two familiar, rampant examples.

So why not recruit some of that energy? Not all vines are destructive or ungovernable. Most, in fact, are very garden- and gardener-friendly -- and can even help with your utility bills.

Whether you choose a thirsty, climbing hydrangea (work in some compost first), one of the numerous, popular clematises, a passion flower, or even hops if you have trouble sleeping (the scent of the female flowers is reputed to be powerfully sedative), you will have planted beauty and much more.

In the summer, vines will lower the surface air temperature of the structure they grow on or over by shading it, and will help to purify the air as well. In the winter, evergreen vines also shield walls, just as trees do, from wind and weather, and can help keep heating bills down. Vines can also muffle noise of traffic and neighbors, helping to create a quiet, peaceful oasis.

Most vines are fairly inexpensive and can be bought conveniently from garden catalogs and nurseries. They do not take up valuable patio or sidewalk space.

Instead, vines have the marvelous ability to go upward and clothe barren walls with greenery and flowers from astonishingly small areas of garden soil. This is a priceless asset these days, when real estate prices force town and city dwellers onto ever smaller bits of land. When every square foot is precious, less and less space is granted to the outside of the building. This makes vines a double bargain.

The sheer pleasure of having such a plant as wisteria swathe an otherwise undistinguished balcony with cascades of lush foliage and May-blooming, lavender-blue flowers is well worth the small amount of work it involves. I have one planted on an exposed southwest corner of my front porch, next to an asphalt driveway. It takes the brunt of both summer heat and winter wind and is a constant enjoyment to me, though it does tend to fling itself up over the roof and gutters a bit.

Nor would I hesitate to plant a tub of Chinese wisteria or a red-flowered honeysuckle, such as "Serotina," lonicera periclymenum, to drape over a sunny apartment balcony. When your lease is up, just cut back the vine to 4 or 6 feet and take it with you (although I would recommend that you do this when it is dormant, as cutting plants back too early in the season is likely to provoke new growth that will not have time to become winter-hardy).

A neglected Maryland native, loved by hummingbirds, is the trumpet vine, campsis radicans. It is now available in yellow and lipstick red as well as its basic orangy-crimson. All can grow happily to 40 feet in a season even though it dies back in winter.

For a half-shady or shady wall -- those curses of the urban garden -- you could try Virginia creeper (parthenocissus quinquefolia). Pollution-tolerant, it will reach up and cover a brick or masonry wall with its five-fingered leaves in no time. It offers a graceful tracery of green, which turns bright scarlet in autumn. It is a cousin of Boston ivy, but has no thuggish rooting suckers to damage masonry.

For those desiring something with more eye-stopping color, I would suggest akebia. This little-known vine sports pink and green varicolored leaves as well as a tough-skinned, sweet, edible fruit (plant two for pollination). It also makes a delightful ground cover. It can spread up to 20 feet and requires annual pruning if you want it kept smaller. Akebia also does well in part shade, and would be divine trained over a pergola or trellised entry porch. I have often thought how stunning the effect would be of entwining tiny, outdoor Christmas lights through it for use as year-round lighting at night in a walled courtyard.

Carolina Jessamine (gelsemium sempervirens) is another fine choice for a bright, north-facing or lightly shaded wall in a sheltered location. A brick chimney flue would be just the spot and would provide good support for this delicate-looking, evergreen climber with pale yellow or white flowers. While not a true jasmine, it has a sweet scent that resembles that tropical vine enough to earn it the name, and it is a good deal hardier. Carolina jessamine can reach 20 feet, but is easily pruned. The double-flowered variety is worth pursuing as it has a longer bloom time than the single-flowered.

These are only a few of the possibilities. The main thing is to start looking at things differently -- not at gardening space limited in horizontal footage, but at walls as blank canvases, three-story trellises, vertical gardens to rival ancient Babylon's famous hanging gardens. Now there were some people with a bright idea about cityscapes!

Be aware that vines need substantial structural support. These include vines such as wisteria, campsis, climbing roses, and the like (mature vines can weigh a couple of hundred pounds). For others, some butchers' twine or inexpensive plastic garden netting is all you need.

Not all vines can be planted this time of year, but many will take well to this head start. Ivies, clematis, campsis, honeysuckle and wisteria can all establish themselves in the autumn. More tender specimens, such as akebia, hops and Carolina jessamine, should wait for spring.

Pub Date: 9/08/96

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